Bil’s rating (out of 5): B
USA, 2021. Netflix, Paper Kite Productions. Screenplay by Tamara Chestna, Dylan Meyer, based on the novel by Jennifer Mathieu. Cinematography by Tom Magill. Produced by Kim Lessing, Amy Poehler, Morgan Sackett. Music by Mac McCaughan. Production Design by Erin Magill. Costume Design by Kirston Leigh Mann. Film Editing by Julie Monroe.
Amy Poehler makes her directorial debut with this teen drama partly inspired by the Riot Grrrl movement, in which she also plays a supporting role as the mother of a teenage girl named Vivian (Hadley Robinson). Vivian has a moment of awakening when she hears a new student in class named Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) push back against the oppressive norms she encounters: the studying of The Great Gatsby, a novel about the heartbreak of a Long Island millionaire, doesn’t reflect enough of the American experience and the school’s most popular student, a football player named Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger, effectively playing a teenager at 27) who bullies girls in the name of just kidding around, is rude to Lucy when she expresses this opinion. While the other students tell Lucy that he means nothing by his intrusive, borderline sociopathic behaviour, Lucy does not mince words in calling him out as a threat to people’s safety. Her complaints make no impression on the school’s hands-off principal (Marcia Gay Harden) but awakens a realization in Vivian that what she has been accepting as normal interplay between the sexes is actually a culture sickened by a twisted idea of the status quo. Her response is to secretly create a magazine at home that she calls “Moxie” and distributes anonymously; it ignites a movement in her school, inspiring even harder push back from Mitchell but creating a group of like-minded, optimistic students who believe they can improve their environment and make it so that female students have as much cultural influence on school spirit as the males do, and inspire fear in anyone who would dare try and hurt them. So far this all sounds like the perfect recipe for a heartwarming and rousing tale to help us loony lefties sleep at night, and with the comedic genius of Poehler guiding it along, there must be some great laughs along the road to liberation, right? Wrong! A ridiculous two hour running time (for a teen high school movie!) is stretched across overlong, dramatically inert scenes in which Poehler appears to know little more about directing than removing the lens cap from her camera, a sluggish film whose dry pace is not helped by canned dialogue that never for a second sounds like the way real people speak or respects real people’s conflicts: young people who want to change the world are truly wonderful partly because they’re navigating the minefields of teenage hormones, peer pressure and, in many cases, a bad situation at home while clinging to their values against all these impressive odds (something adults can’t do, losing all ideological momentum once mortgages and children come into the picture). Poehler’s characters are cardboard cutouts who have too few complications to come across as anything more than illustrated Instagram quotes in human form, and she allows dull scenes to run long without ever finding the dramatic core in any of them. Her representation of toxic male culture has all bad behaviour poured into one character, Mitchell is basically Bryce Dallas Howard in The Help, the one active bad person instead a country full of passive good ones, and Vivian is a particularly unwatchable characterization that Robinson can’t turn into a human being. Her mother rarely holds her to account for her worst behaviour and no one who forces her to realize the blind spots in her admirable ideology ever holds her to any consequences, meaning that we never see her learn more than how to get people to say and do what she wants.